The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who led his team to ten national championships, used to tell his team each day, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” This was his way of letting them know that the games are often won or lost because of what went on in practice while getting ready for the competition. In the same way, what separates the average drummer from the really good drummer is not the amount of practice time (though that is crucial) but the quality of practice.
After 20 years of teaching I’m convinced most students don’t get all they could out of their practice. Practicing music is very much like practicing a sport. A good athlete prepares for each game carefully and methodically. He or she works with the coach, much in the way a good musician works with a teacher. In the following paragraphs I will show you some simple techniques for planning your practice routine and getting maximum results from your efforts.
Step one is to create a practice schedule. Take a sheet of paper and write down the amount of time you need to set aside for practice. Next, make a list of the areas that you will focus on while practicing, such as “rudiments” or “foot control.” Break your practice down into 15-minute segments. This way you can work on one specific area in which you need to improve for a set amount of time each day.
To help with your scheduling it’s good to have a timer. Set it for the desired practice time and when it goes off proceed to your next subject. To avoid becoming exhausted you can take a 5-minute break between intense 15-minute practice sessions.
It goes without saying that you need to find a good place to practice as well. Though a drummer with a stick and a pad can practice anywhere, it also helps to have a place you can go regularly. It may be a school room, a friend's basement or a garage, but you need to set up your practice retreat to keep yourself motivated.
Now that you’ve got control of your practice time, and a spot to practice, you need to get the proper mental focus. Let’s take a look at the approach of a professional athlete again. The athlete is always thinking about the big game, the ultimate contest. For a musician it’s the stage, like getting on the Warped Tour or performing at Carnegie Hall. But the path from where we are today to our ultimate goal can be long and arduous. Without focus on each step of the journey, we’ll never reach our goal.
Practice the right things. Part of focus is doing the right things as well as doing things right. You can practice for hours but if your time and technique are terrible, you’re just rehearsing bad technique. Always practice for a reason. Think about what you are practicing, what the goal is, and listen for what needs to be improved in your playing.
This mental aspect of our practice includes the need for a positive attitude and the ability to visualize our future success. One of the main obstacles we all face in any endeavor is our own fear of failure. We have to learn to control our attitude and our thoughts in the practice room, because once we get in front of an audience it may be too late. Before and during your practice, give yourself positive affirmations. Tell yourself that you will make it and that you can play. If needed, talk about your problem areas and fears with a teacher or someone who believes in you.
Once you’ve got some basic mastery of simple 4/4 time, you need to mix up your practice routine with exercises to challenge yourself. One way of practicing with the metronome is to use the click as beats 2 and 4 to aid you in playing styles such as jazz, Latin, rock, and funk. It helps you keep a solid groove.
Another technique is to make the metronome beat 1 and the upbeats such as the &’s (eighths) the e’s and ah’s (sixteenths). This method will also encourage you to keep your grooves precise.
When you encounter a difficult pattern in your practice, try using the metronome as the subdivision of the pattern. Then be patient as you work the pattern from very slow to very fast.
Finally, remember that the metronome is there to help you achieve smooth control of your playing, not speed. Speed comes from good technique, not the other way around.